An Online Community for RFID Software Developers

By Ken Traub

The EPC UHF industry must take steps to welcome innovators.

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Last month, the RAIN Alliance—an industry consortium dedicated to promoting adoption of ultrahigh-frequency RFID technology based on the ISO 18000-63/EPC Gen 2 air interface—met in Portland, Ore. A RAIN subcommittee made three observations about how to improve life for software developers.

First, there needs to be an online community where developers can learn what others are doing and get answers to questions. A typical developer community includes discussion groups and links to educational material and open-source software. Online communities can thrive only if there is critical mass. This means there has to be some commonality in the software interfaces provided by the various reader manufacturers. RFID isn’t big enough to support different developer communities for, say, Alien Technology, Impinj and Zebra Technologies, but it is big enough to support one community for all of them.

Second, software engineers must be able to work in familiar ways. Most RFID reader development kits are based on a decade-old style of programming, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy and only weather forecasters talked about clouds. Today’s software engineers are accustomed to working in high-level scripting languages oriented toward Web computing and cloud computing. Reader interfaces have to support that paradigm.

Third, the industry needs standardized reader interfaces that operate at a higher level than what’s available today. Many readers support GS1‘s Low-Level Reader Protocol (LLRP). But as the name says, it is a low-level interface that was never intended as a starting point for building applications. Using LLRP requires too much hardware-specific knowledge, and the data that comes out is raw binary data, not a decoded application-level identifier such as a Serialized Global Trade Item Number.

Consequently, application developers must resort to middleware to get a high-level interface, but that adds complexity and expense that can be justified only when networks of many readers are employed. Reader companies usually provide free software development kits akin to a lightweight middleware layer, but most of these are low-level, too. Nearly all of them, for example, deliver only raw binary data to an application.

RAIN is in the process of establishing a developer community. That could help address the other two issues. As I wrote in The State of Reader Interfaces, the GS1 Applica­tion-Level Events (ALE) standard can deliver RFID data in a format most application programming languages are designed to understand. But most reader vendors don’t support it. A robust developer community could lobby reader vendors to support ALE or a similar protocol. Or developers could create open-source software that supports ALE and works with proprietary readers. ALE also supports high-level scripting languages, so that issue would be addressed, too.

Ken Traub is the founder of Ken Traub Consulting, a Mass.-based firm providing services to com­panies that rely on advanced software technology to run their businesses. Send your software questions to